In the last few posts we’ve discussed how to outline and plan your first bicycle touring route, with a few helpful categories to get you started.
Now that you’ve got some idea of where you want to go and how you want to get there, the next step is to consider the most important piece of gear in any bike tour: the bicycle itself.
There are a number of factors to consider when choosing the type of touring bike you’ll take on the road:
- Efficiency and speed
- Strength and durability
- Off-roading capability
Unfortunately, you will not be able to maximise all four factors in a single bicycle. For example, you will have to sacrifice some extra weight and efficiency to create a stronger, more comfortable bike.
This is probably a lot less complicated than you might think, and break it down in a way that matches different types of bicycle tourists to the most important factors they should consider when touring a bicycle. Note that there is some overlap here between bicycle tourists and the routes they prefer.
Sound good? Okay, let’s begin:
A Credit Card Tourist (image source)
1. The Credit Card Tour
The Credit Card Cycle Tourist doesn’t want to camp or cook their own food each morning and night. At most they’ve got some very basic tools, a couple of changes of clothes and some toiletries. For everything else — lodging, meals, any repairs beyond a basic puncture — they rely on the slice of plastic living in their wallet.
Because the Credit Card Tourist doesn’t carry much weight — and therefore doesn’t put as much stress on the bicycle as a fully laden steed packing cooking and camping gear — they can afford to ratchet up the efficiency and speediness of their bicycle, safely sacrificing the need for major strength and durability in return. For example, Credit Card Tourists tend to opt for a carbon fibre frame over stronger steel, or a hardtail racing saddle over a comfier — but less efficient — leather option. Likewise, offroading capability is usually not a concern for Credit Card Tourists, whose tours tend to stick to areas where essentials like food, water, lodging (and therefore asphalt) can be easily found.
The verdict: Credit Card tourists can get away with the lightweight components of a racing bike frame, which tends to be optimised for efficiency, speed and comfort.
At the opposite end of the bicycle tourist spectrum, we have the Bikepacker. We discussed this vibrant sub-group within the bike touring community a couple of posts back. Their desire to ride on remote wilderness trails — often going days or even weeks at a time between stores or signs of civilization — gives them a unique set of needs that must maximise off-roading capability (and, to a lesser extent, strength and durability) over all else. Bikepacking often requires technical mountain biking skills and the tools to pull it off: fat, stubbly tyres that make for horribly inefficient road riding become essential for negotiating dirt trails, suspension systems that can sap your pedal power help preserve the integrity of your frame (and your butt) and bags and panniers must be rigged higher up on the bike’s frame to prevent them from snagging on narrow trails.
The verdict: Bikepackers on long distance off-road tours will need some kind of mountain bike, capable of withstanding the rigours of loaded trail riding. In other words, their ride should be optimized for off-roading capability as well as strength and durability.
3. The Self Sufficient Road Tourist
This is the most common type of bicycle tourist: someone who sets off on their bike trip looking to maximise their independence by carrying camping, cooking and repair gear while not restricting themselves to wilderness trails. Because there is a lot more variety within this most populous category of bicycle tourist, there’s also a lot more room for customisation.
When I first started planning my own big bicycle tour I always opted for the heavier, more durable option instead of optimising for weight or efficiency: I trusted my legs to become strong enough to push the added weight around, but I did not trust my brain to fix a lighter, more delicate piece of gear when it broke. So I chose a sturdy steel frame, chunky and compact 26 inch x 1.5 inch wheel frames, traditional V-brakes over stronger (but more technically finicky) disc brakes and so on.
I also optimised for comfort over efficiency: I sat on a dreamy Brooks leather saddle rather than a more efficient hardtail racing saddle, chose flat pedals instead of more efficient clip-in options and chose flat handlebars with bar-ends to give me some comfortable hand positions, rather than the more aggressive posture required from racing-style drop bars. For tyres, I chose a middle-of-the-road Schwalbe Marathon Plus — optimised against punctures, smooth enough to be tolerable on asphalt while just grippy enough to handle the odd off-road detour.
It must be said that all of these factors (and more) can be customised to the needs of your tour. If you don’t plan on ever leaving the pavement, you’ll probably get away with smoother, more efficient road tyres. If you’re also not planning on carrying very much weight (for example, if you’ll never have to carry more than a half-day’s water supply) you might also get away with a frame and racks made from aluminium instead of steel. Aluminium is is lighter but weaker than steel, and harder to fix, while steel is strong and relatively easy to fix for any welder anywhere in the world, but much heavier — but much heavier.
It’s also worth considering where you’re going, and the bicycle parts that will (or will not) be available in that part of the world. The general consensus seems to be that 26-inch wheels (as opposed to the more pleasant rolling sensation of a 29-inch), steel frames, V-brakes or cantilever brakes and Shimano parts (for brakes and gears) are your best options if you’re travelling in the developing world (ie anywhere outside of the developed countries in North America, Europe and Asia.)
The verdict: As a general rule, a touring bike that’s going on a longer trip should be optimised for comfort, strength and durability. Off-roading capabilities like knobbly tyres and suspension systems will unnecessarily sap your efficiency unless you plan on spending some serious miles in the dirt while, on the other hand, a longer trip will give you enough physical fitness to overcome the reduced speed and efficiency that comes with a stronger, more comfortable frame.
And there you have it: the three major types of bicycle broken down by their suitability for different kinds of long-distance bicycle tour. As always, hit me up at firstname.lastname@example.org or down below in the comments section with any questions.
Next time, we’ll discuss how to physically prepare for your bicycle trip, to make sure your body is capable of taking that less-efficient (but oh-so strong and comfortable) touring bike around the world.